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Myths About Space Spinoffs

by Philip Chien

What do Tang, Teflon, and Velcro have in common? If you said they're space program spinoffs you're wrong. If you said they're trademarked products which have been used by the space program - you're right. Madison Avenue and heavy hype from advertisers is responsible for Tang, Teflon, and Velcro's attachment with the space program. In fact all of them have been around since *before* the first satellites were launched!

A 1960s advertisement connecting Tang with the space program. At least a couple of worldwide web sites list 1965 as the year Tang was invented - it was actually introduced by General Foods in 1957, a couple of years before NASA was even formed. Early on NASA realized that most of the food on spacecraft would have to be dehydrated to save weight. So instant drinks were selected, including coffee and tea. General Food's Tang was one of the first powdered beverage drinks available, and had some nutritional value. Heavy advertising by General Foods about Tang being the drink of the astronauts led the public to always associate Tang with the space program.

Now there are dozens of different drinks available - basically anything you can find on the instant drink aisle in the supermarket. With Russia's participation in the International Space Station there are also plenty of Russian drinks like "grape juice with pectin" (thicker than a milkshake) and apricot juice with pulp.

Velcro has been used heavily by the space program but it was not invented for the space program. It was actually invented in the 1940s in Switzerland. George de Mestral had taken his dog for a walk and noticed something unremarkable - the dog's coat was covered with cockleburs. But unlike most of us who would just remove them he put them under a microscope and found out why they stuck so well to fur and clothing - they were shaped like natural hooks. Eventually that led to the two-sided hook and nape connecting pads.

Cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin aboard the space shuttle. Note that the walls, and even a container of peanut butter, have Velcro patches. Astronauts say they can't live without Velcro in space. Most walls, ceilings, and floors are covered with Velcro nape squares and practically everything an astronaut uses including pens, notepads, food, and yes - even bags of Tang have Velcro tabs. But Velcro was not invented for the space program.

Teflon actually predates World War II. It was invented by accident in a Dupont laboratory by chemist Roy J. Plunkett in 1938. He was smart enough to realize he had come up with something unusual - the most slippery substance ever created. As with Tang and Velcro the space program has used plenty of Teflon. Parts are made out of solid Teflon plastics, Teflon is used to coat many products, and some ropes are made from Teflon.

So what has come from the space program? Thousands of spinoffs, mostly in engineering and medical fields. But two of the most common products in your workshop are actual space program spinoffs.

A popular space program spin-off in most households - WD-40. Look at the blue and yellow can of WD-40 spray lubricant sitting on the shelf. Did you ever wonder what 'WD-40' meant? To prevent corrosion on metals in a sea air environment you need to keep water away. WD stands for water displacement, and it was the 40th attempt to find a suitable mixture of oils to do the job. If the scientists at Rocket Chemical Company were a little luckier in their attempts it might have been called WD-39! The first purpose for WD-40 was to protect the Atlas rocket - a job it still does today, half a century later. In 1953 the Atlas was an ICBM under development to launch nuclear bombs to Russia. Now the Atlas is a rocket used to launch satellites - and it uses Russian engines on its first stage. The Russian RD-180 engines used on the Atlas V are descendants of the engines on the early Russian ICBMs which were pointed at the United States during the Cold War!

Astronaut Mike Lopez-Alegria with his cordless electric power tool. Cordless power tools were originally developed for the Apollo moonwalkers. The first consumer cordless tools weren't too popular because the batteries didn't last long enough. But with improved rechargeable batteries they're now indispensable. Today's astronauts feel the same way about their ultimate power tool - the Pistol Grip Tool which they call PGT. The PGT was originally designed for use to service the Hubble Space Telescope and the astronauts liked it so much they made it the standard power tool for assembling the International Space Station. The PGT has its own computer which can be programmed for speed, torque, and number of turns. But it's essentially just a real fancy 3/8" power drill. And for just $160,000 - it's a bargain.

But there's one space spinoff you'll probably never see. NASA developed an antenna which folds up like an umbrella for its Tracking Data and Relay Satellite. While designing the woven antenna engineers discovered a weaving pattern which would prevent runs. Pantyhose manufacturers weren't interested though; no-run pantyhose isn't good for repeat business.

Tang advertisement by General Mills. WD-40 photo courtesy of WD-40 company.
Space photos from the author's exclusive collection of photos not publicly released by NASA. Copyright 2009


Kraft Foods timeline with the invention of Tang in 1957.

The history of Teflon.

The history of Velcro.

WD-40's history.

The ultimate cordless power tool.

About the author

Philip Chien covered the space program for two decades for many major news organizations.

copyright 2009 All Rights Reserved.